How a pen is mightier than prejudice

1st February 2008 at 00:00
Poor recognition of left-handed pupils is detrimental to their learning.

Left-handed pupils' needs are going undetected because left-handedness is considered a "taboo" subject in schools, according to award-winning research carried out in a North Ayrshire school.

Well-intentioned teachers are reluctant to draw attention to left-handedness, it is claimed. Where once prejudice was the problem, now pupils suffer because their left-handedness is overlooked, according to researcher Stella Pratt-Smith, who carried out the research independently but is now based at Glasgow University.

Nevertheless, she argues that these "hidden pockets of strife" could be relatively easily overcome, if only the problems of left-handed pupils were acknowledged.

Ms Pratt-Smith's study has caused a stir among senior figures at the Scottish Educational Research Association, who recently awarded her the inaugural Estelle Brisard Memorial Prize for outstanding work by researchers early in their careers.

Her paper states: "While negativity and prejudice against left-handedness has largely been eliminated from schools and society, it may have led also to less recognition of such pupils' continuing and specific learning needs, needs that are often quite different to those of the majority right-handed school population. As a result, those children's 'differences' are often overlooked."

Ms Pratt-Smith's observations come after a detailed trawl through previously published literature on left-handedness and her own small-scale study involving boys at Kilwinning Academy, in North Ayrshire, where she taught English in her probationary year.

"While (left-handed pupils) may not be bullied or humiliated as they once were, they now occupy an odd position where they do not receive guidance because the subject itself has become almost taboo," she states.

Her conclusion is stark: "What has been revealed here is that a significant difference does indeed exist between the needs of left- and right-handed writers and that there is, indeed, a gap in school provision for these pupils' needs."

Yet this gap can be "easily and affordably addressed", as her case study shows.

The impetus for Ms Pratt-Smith's research was her own classroom experiences with "lefties".

One "bright" second-year boy, whose handwriting was barely legible, became "noticeably disruptive" when he had to write at any length.

When she suggested using left-handed pens, he said he had never heard of them and raised the issue with his mother; she said they did not exist and that Ms Pratt-Smith must have been "laughing at him".

Ms Pratt-Smith gave him a specially-angled left-handed pen - the Yoropen brand - which he was "wildly keen on" and led to a "significant improvement" in his handwriting within two weeks.

This was consistent with the results of her subsequent study with a small group of five right- and six left-handed boys from S1 English classes.

They submitted handwritten pieces with both standard pens and Yoropens. They were asked via a questionnaire how they got on, while teachers were asked to assess the handwriting.

The questionnaires showed that only one left-handed pupil had ever previously had special advice or guidance from a teacher about writing left-handed - the teacher had advised him to practise using right-handed scissors.

After using the Yoropen, none of the right-handed pupils thought it had made any difference to their handwriting, but the left-handed respondents were unanimous in saying it felt more comfortable and that they wanted to carry on using it. Left-handers' writing was "irrefutably improved" by the Yoropen.

The paper ends by observing that the need to fit in, combined with past bad treatment of left-handers, means left-handed pupils find it difficult to admit to needs that might make them different to other pupils. "As this study reveals, however, silence does not necessarily mean the need does not exist," Ms Pratt-Smith states.

- Ms Pratt-Smith shared the Estelle Brisard Memorial Prize - named after a former member of the SERA executive committee who died in 2006 - with Strathclyde University researcher Shagufta Chandi, who wrote a paper on systems biology and its implications for education.

PUT YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR FOR LEFTIES

Stella Pratt-Smith's research may have particular relevance in Scotland. The Nigel Bradley survey in 1992 identified a smaller proportion of left-handed people north of border than in England, perhaps because "older teaching methods" had persuaded more natural left-handers into right-handedness.

Bradley speculated that reduced prejudice against left-handers was part of the reason why around 10 per cent of the British population is left-handed, compared to 3 per cent of those born before 1910. By comparison, in 1992 only 8 per cent of Scots sampled were left-handed - the joint lowest figure, along with Wales and the north of England, in the UK - against 11 per cent overall.

Other reasons suggested for this disparity were: a greater likelihood that left-handed people would migrate from these regions and "broadly different gene pools".

Ms Pratt-Smith also highlights concerns that the UK government has "watered down" its focus on handwriting, leaving schools to work out their own policies - which often means doing very little.

Left-handers face "still further obstacles" in universities, where taking lengthy lecture notes is difficult and cheap desks designed exclusively for right-handers are "increasingly common".

Ms Pratt-Smith stresses that further studies are needed to establish the extent to which the gap in provision affecting left-handers leads to knock-on effects on attainment and behaviour.

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